On the hunt

Melissa Hill, assistant curator in charge of live raptors for the Draper Museum Raptor Experience at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, is set to bring four raptors to Laramie next week. Hill, seen here with a vulture, plans to talk about raptor adaptations that maximize predatory success. Courtesy photo

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A University of Wyoming graduate and raptor expert is set to bring four raptors to Laramie next week to talk about the specialized adaptations of predatory birds.

The presentation, sponsored by Laramie Audubon Society and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. Wednesday at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. Refreshments will be offered starting at 6:40 p.m.

Melissa Hill is the assistant curator in charge of live raptors for the Draper Museum Raptor Experience at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. The Buffalo Bill Center includes five museums and a research library. The Draper Natural History Museum opened in 2002.

Hill will be bringing four of the museum’s nine resident raptors with her to Laramie — a red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, great horned owl and saw-whet owl. Hill described the museum’s birds as “permanently non-releasable.”

“Every one of them hatched in the wild but can’t survive out there anymore,” she said.

While the presentation isn’t scripted, Hill said she plans to talk about survival strategies used by birds of prey, which make them some of the top predators in Wyoming. For example, raptors have incredible eye sight, they can camouflage themselves, and they can soar in the air for hours without flapping their wings.

Hill said most raptors aren’t disliked, but people might not understand the role they play. One of her goals is to promote a conservation mindset. Raptors are defined as birds that eat only meat they catch with talons and rip apart with their beak. The group includes owls, hawks, falcons and eagles.

“We’re trying to get the facts out there so people understand why they do the things they do, why they are so important to the environment,” she said.

Like many wild animals, raptors are threatened by habitat loss because of human development. Their biggest threats in the United States are from the human presence in the form of vehicle collisions, poisoning, wind turbines and electrocution.

She advises people to consider small changes such as avoiding the use of rat poison and lead ammunition, slowing their car in wildlife areas and keeping their cats indoors.

She said it sometimes takes a close encounter with a bird of prey for someone to appreciate them.

“There are some people, when they can see them up close, when you can tell them the facts about them, you can change minds,” she said.

Hill never considered she’d make a career out of working with predatory birds when she moved to Laramie from South Dakota to attend the University of Wyoming.

While she was a junior working on a degree in wildlife and fisheries biology and management, she started volunteering at Laramie Raptor Refuge.

“Until I found Laramie Raptor Refuge, I probably didn’t even know what a raptor was,” Hill said. “It was a very chance kind of thing, and the best thing that happened in my whole life.”

She was drawn to the intelligence, beauty and power of the birds, as well as their importance to the environment. Raptors help control the size of prey populations.

When she graduated from UW, Hill took a job working with raptors at an animal park in Rapid City, South Dakota, called Reptile Gardens.

She has worked with more than 70 raptors during her career.

“Fortunately, most of them are pretty willing to cooperate and have a working partnership with people,” she said.

She often travels around the state to do outreach with the birds, but rarely takes them overnight because of the stresses of travel. In a car, the birds remain in a kennel or travel box. Without specialized accommodations, they must also spend the night in a box. In Laramie, however, they have a place to stay where they can be in rooms.

“It’s the only place we do overnights,” she said.

The Draper Museum Raptor Experience, located just outside Yellowstone National Park, is entering its fifth summer of operation. The center offers at least one educational program with raptors each day the Buffalo Bill Center is open, and up to three shows a day during the tourist season.

“We love to show these birds off,” Hill said.

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